With talks on the disputed UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo poised to begin in December, all sides are hedging their bets - Belgrade to maintain its sovereignty over the province as possible and Pristina to win nothing short of full independence - while observers worry of rising tensions that could lead to more bloodshed.
By Tim Judah for ISN Security Watch (10/10/05)
Talks on Kosovo’s status will, more than likely, begin in December and move to some sort of climax possibly as early as next spring. However, as one of the most senior diplomats involved in the Kosovo issue has told ISN Security Watch, “turbulence can be expected”.
After six years under UN jurisdiction it is safe to say that the disputed province is now moving towards a new chapter in its history, but it remains unclear what the outcome of the talks will be.
The disputed province
Kosovo’s future status is bitterly disputed between Serbs and Albanians. Of its 2 million people, more than 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians who have consistently demanded independence. The Serbian government’s current policy is “more than autonomy but less than independence”.
While the province enjoyed relative autonomy under the Yugoslav Communist government in the 1970s, the 1980s were characterized by rising ethnic tensions, with both Serbs and Albanians complaining of discrimination. In August 1987, as the Communist regime was taking its final breath, rising Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic visited the province, setting the stage for what was to become a bloody conflict. In 1989, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. Mass unrest and the slaughter and forced removal of Kosovo Albanians ensued during the war of 1998-1999.
Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, after NATO’s military action against Serbs, the province has been under the jurisdiction of the UN, although technically sovereignty has remained with Serbia.
In the months that followed NATO’s military action in 1999, large numbers of Kosovo Serbs fled the province to Serbia. The minority that decided to stay have since lived in enclaves, some of them guarded by international forces. Serbian Orthodox religious sites and institutions have been under the constant threat of attack by Albanians since then.
Lessening the blow to Serbia
The decision to begin talks in December comes days after the EU agreed to begin talks with Serbia on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), the first step towards EU membership for western Balkan nations. Diplomats have told ISN Security Watch that they decided not to let the outstanding issue of Ratko Mladic - the fugitive wartime Bosnian Serb army general wanted by the UN’s war crimes tribunal in The Hague - stand in the way of those talks.
Instead, they are hoping that the good news of the conclusion of an SAA agreement next year may help counteract the simultaneous bad news of the final loss of Kosovo and the secession of Montenegro from the state union with Serbia.
On 7 October, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote to the UN Security Council recommending that long awaited talks on the province’s future begin soon.
Annan’s recommendation was made in a letter, which accompanied a report on the situation in the province made for him by Kai Eide, Norway’s ambassador to NATO.
In the document, Eide said progress in implementing a series of standards devised by the UN, which cover everything from free elections to minority rights, was “uneven” but pointed out that “there will not be any good moment for addressing Kosovo’s future status…nevertheless an overall assessment leads to the conclusion that the time has come to commence this process”.
Annan said he would initiate preparations for the appointment of a special envoy to lead the future status process - preparations that are already advanced - and it is widely expected that former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who has considerable Balkan experience, will be chosen for the job.
The UN Security Council is now scheduled to meet on 18 December to discuss Kosovo.
According to diplomatic sources, the UN envoy will have three deputies: one from the US, one from the EU, and one from Russia.
The next phase
Following a series of interviews with ISN Security Watch over the last few weeks in London, Belgrade, and the Kosovo capital of Pristina, it is possible to envisage the talks scenario, at least for the next few months. Most of those who talked to ISN Security Watch on this topic did so on condition of anonymity.
Security Watch sources believe that the person chosen to head the talks, along with his deputies, will initiate a period of shuttle diplomacy in December.
The initial round of talks will not be face to face, but it is possible that working groups could be set up to look at several specific issues. After a period of intensive shuttling, the envoy may then withdraw with his team to compose an initial draft agreement on Kosovo.
Once this draft is completed, it is expected that Serbian and Albanian negotiators could be summoned to meet, rather like the failed 1999 talks at Rambouillet outside Paris.
Austria takes over the EU presidency from Britain at the beginning of next year and diplomats have suggested that Vienna should be used by the UN Kosovo envoy as a base.
That remains to be seen but, what is conceivable says Veton Surroi, the Kosovo Albanian publisher, opposition leader, and member of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team, is that the face-to-face discussions begin in “let us say, a castle in Austria in May”.
One very senior diplomat outlined a scenario in which he expected the Serbian delegation would fight extremely hard to make sure that all the safeguards they want for Kosovo’s Serbs and the Orthodox Churches and monasteries were securely in the final document.
In this, they will have been given a boost by the fact that Eide has already recommended much of what they say they want.
For example, he has suggested an extensive decentralization plan in which Kosovo Serbs would be given competences “in areas such as police, justice, education, culture, media, and the economy”. He has also recommended that “protective space” should be created around Serbian Orthodox religious sites and institutions and that ways should be found to place them “under a form of international protection”.
The fact that the Serbian side may well succeed in getting much of what it wants in terms of the internal organization of Kosovo does not of course mean it will succeed in getting what it wants in terms of the broader picture.
Serbian government policy, as outlined by Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the head of Serbia’s Coordination Center for Kosovo, is that Kosovo can have judicial, executive, and legislative autonomy, but that sovereignty must remain with Serbia.
In the scenario outlined for ISN Security Watch, what may happen is that after Serbia has succeeded in packing the draft agreement with all the safeguards it seeks and in having its interests acknowledged in certain areas, the Serbian delegation may then refuse to endorse the plan because it also points the way to Kosovo’s independence at a sooner or later date.
Reluctantly, perhaps the Albanians then would be compelled to accept more in terms of Serbian rights in Kosovo than they would have done otherwise, but they would accept this under international pressure as the high price of independence.
Serbia’s leaders, none of whom want to take responsibility for losing Kosovo, can also say that, at this point and having fought as hard as possible, Kosovo was taken away from Serbia but not with Belgrade’s consent.
The question now arises as to what form of independence Kosovo will have, and at what stage. Significantly, the Eide report never uses the phrase “final status”, as opposed to “future status”, and the last lines of the report leave the door open for several options.
While arguing that “the international community must do the utmost to ensure that whatever the status becomes, it does not become a ‘failed status’”, it also says: “Entering the future status process does not mean the last stage, but the next stage of the international presence.”
Although Eide was not asked to comment on the question of ultimate sovereignty he does make various suggestions that broadly chime with mainstream diplomatic opinion about the fate of Kosovo. That is that there should be a follow-up mission to KFOR, the current NATO-led force there, that at least some US troops should remain, and that the EU take on a role in the police sphere at the very least.
Certain elements of the Bosnian model look set to be borrowed, too: for example, the installation of a High Representative with considerable powers, if not across the board, then in the field of inter-ethnic relations. In this sense, the independence that many diplomats and analysts are assuming Kosovo will get will be “conditional”.
It may well be that the document of reference to consult now is the International Commission on the Balkans of last April, which outlines a four-stage transition to full independence over an unspecified period culminating in Kosovo joining the EU.
Belgrade sobering up
Although conditional independence does indeed look likely for Kosovo, its Albanian leaders - who have done little so far to prepare for talks and seemingly have been lulled into a false sense of security by such a widespread assumption - are perhaps more concerned with their place in history than the tough negotiations ahead.
In this they have underestimated the sobering-up that has taken place in Belgrade in the last few months. Although it is true that for the moment it is unclear who will have the last word in Belgrade on what can or cannot be agreed, it is clear that there is now a far more realistic idea of what might be achieved in Kosovo than there was several months ago.
For example, experienced diplomats with a deep knowledge of Kosovo, such as Dusan Batakovic, who currently advises Serbian President Boris Tadic, are now gaming various scenarios for talks and preparing positions.
This does not mean that the Serbian side can stave off the ending of their sovereignty over Kosovo, but it does mean that Serbia stands a better chance of doing so than it did before. One (reserve) aim may well be to see whether the issue of sovereignty can be left open or at least left extremely unclear for the foreseeable future.
Such an option would be unacceptable to the Kosovo Albanians, whose negotiators will be looking over their shoulders at developments back home. In this context, the “joker” in the pack is Albin Kurti, a 30-year old former student leader and political prisoner.
Studying the techniques of the young people who organized the overthrow of their former regimes in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, Kurti is currently organizing people in a bid to ready them to come out onto the streets to protest against the future talks.
His argument is that talks aim at compromise and that there can be no compromise on Kosovo’s independence. In other words, negotiations can only take place when Kosovo is independent and thus an equal of Serbia.
His slogan - “No Negotiations! Self Determination!” - is already plastered all over Pristina, but his strength is as yet untested. If, however, at a crucial point in talks, one of the Albanian parties - for example, the Democratic Party of Kosovo of former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci - decides to swing his support behind Kurti then the outcome of talks, especially if a wave of anti-Serbian ethnic cleansing similar to that of March 2004 also breaks out again, cannot be predicted.
Tim Judah is a senior international correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He is also the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: War and Revenge, both published by Yale University Press.